Enhanced security efforts, including special plastic cards for employees and limiting the public to use of only one entrance, are being planned for the Niagara County Courthouse.
The single public door will be guarded by a sheriff's deputy operating a metal detector.
The safety measures, tentatively approved by the County Legislature's Public Works Committee, will upgrade security at what one court official who asked not to be identified called "the least secure courthouse in Western New York."
County Clerk Wayne F. Jagow said, "We've had nothing happen, but shame on us if we don't set up a proper procedure."
Legislator Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville, the chairman of the Public Works Committee, said all courthouse workers will be issued a plastic "swipe card," which they will have to insert into a special scanner to unlock the doors facing Niagara and Hawley streets. The public will no longer be allowed to use those entrances.
All public access to the courthouse will be through the door facing the Park Avenue parking lot. That's where the metal detector and deputy will be set up.
Burmaster's committee is to meet Tuesday, and Public Works Commissioner Dorson R. Wilson said it will likely approve a fund transfer of about $25,000 to pay for the swipe card system, which is to be purchased through competitive bidding.
Chief Deputy John T. Taylor said three deputies are assigned to full-time courthouse duty during weekday business hours. The cost is reimbursed by the state Unified Court System. He said the proposed new state budget is expected to include money for two more deputies, one of whom will be on metal detector duty.
Sources said there have been incidents where knives were confiscated from people appearing in Judge Amy J. Fricano's courtroom. There were also reports that a test run with the metal detector a few weeks ago netted several knives, although Taylor said he had no knowledge of that. "I hope someone would have told me if that had happened," he said.
Burmaster said there was a scare a few weeks ago when someone found what they thought were spent .22-caliber shells in a stairwell. It turned out the items were debris from courthouse renovations.
Wilson said a card system has long been used at the Civic and Human Resources buildings in Niagara Falls and at the Switzer Building on Davison Road in Lockport, where the county Social Services Department is housed.
Burmaster said as part of an overall space reallocation plan, the pistol permit office, currently located in a hallway behind Judge Charles J. Hannigan's courtroom, will be moved to the basement.
Jagow said, "What we don't like is that office being right next to where the inmates are going to testify." The neighboring room is where prisoners are held awaiting court appearances. Burmaster said the current pistol permit office will become a holding room for female prisoners. The courthouse currently has no such facility for women.